Eagles Roar Past Vikes, 42-12
Turnovers and missed tackles loomed large in Union Pines’ 42-12 league football loss to the Western Harnett Eagles Friday in Lillington.
The visiting Vikings lost four fumbles and tossed three interceptions in the 3-A Cape Fear Valley Conference (CFVC) contest. Of the seven turnovers committed by Union Pines’ offense, three led directly to Western Harnett scores, including a 48-yard interception return.
On homecoming night in Lillington, the homestanding Eagles (2-5, 1-1 CFVC) relied heavily on big plays to put points on the scoreboard. Union Pines struggled to contain and make open field tackles on Western’s ball carriers, as the Vikes yielded touchdown runs of 55, 32, 27 and 19 yards, along with an 85-yard kickoff return.
After the game, head coach Ryan Riggan discussed his team’s lack of execution in areas he had described as “two keys,” for Union Pines coming into the tilt.
“I absolutely felt like we were in the game at halftime,” Riggan said, “but a missed tackle followed by costly turnovers sort of put us in a pretty big hole.”
With the score 21-12 in favor of Western as the third quarter started, the Eagles returned the second-half kickoff 55 yards to the Vike 29. A few plays later, Eagles’ running back Will Overton busted loose off-tackle for a 27-yard touchdown scamper.
From there, the Vikes turned the ball over three consecutive times. Two of the miscues led to Eagle scores, including a 48-yard return for six by cornerback Marcus Pratt. The defensive touchdown put Western in front 41-12 with 21.4 seconds remaining in the third quarter and placekicker Eddy Garcia’s sixth successful extra-point boot brought the game to its final tally.
“We talked about taking care of the ball all week,” Riggan said, “and I touched on it in my weekly preview interview Thursday when discussing this game.
“Our story of the season is we can have a chance, but only if we don’t turn the ball over and don’t make mistakes. We had fumbles and really shot ourselves in the foot in situations tonight where we could have capitalized on some of Western’s mistakes, had we executed.”
Typically, senior running back John McMillan comprises one-half of the Vikes’ first-string running back tandem. However, with McMillan unable to play in the game, after sustaining an injury in Thursday’s practice, senior captain A.J. Ritter was forced to bear the brunt of the load at tailback.
Ritter answered the call in resounding fashion in the first half, carrying the ball 21 times for 101 yards, while almost single-handedly keeping Union Pines in the ball game.
After the Eagles opened the night with a four-play, 80-yard scoring drive, Ritter and his offensive line offered an impressive reply. A 30-yard gain by Ritter was the key play in the 13-play, 64-yard drive. The run set up a first and goal, eventually leading to a one-yard quarterback sneak for six by starting quarterback Zak Rodriguez.
Ritter ran the ball 10 times, picking up 49 yards and two first downs on the drive, as Union Pines trailed 7-6 with 2:21 left to play in the opening period.
Junior Parris Manning did play a major role in the Vikings’ second score of the half, when he returned a kickoff 73 yards down to the home team’s seven-yard line. Ritter promptly hit the left edge on the first play from scrimmage for a seven-yard sprint to pay dirt, cutting Western Harnett’s lead to 21-12.
However, without McMillan to spell him, Ritter began to tire in the second half. On each of the Vikes’ first eight plays of the third quarter, Riggan called his number as Rodriguez repeatedly handed the ball off to the senior captain. The final time resulted in a fumble on the exchange.
Ritter again fumbled on the second play of the Vikings second possession, as the Eagles recovered the ball for the fifth Union Pines turnover of the night. The run was his 10th carry of the half and 31st of the game.
Ultimately, Ritter finished the night with 37 carries for 138 yards. While he had found room up the middle, the Eagles’ defensive loaded the strong side all night, effectively taking away the outer edge.
“If we can play ahead of the chains, that is what we want to do as a football team, and A.J. was doing a good job of that,” said Riggan, “While 20 carries in a half is a lot, he was still hammering the ball forward, even though he may have looked to be tiring
“I think if you turn the ball over a few times, then all of a sudden you start feeling those legs a little more than when you were clicking and not turning it over. At any rate, A.J. did a tremendous job for us tonight. He was a true warrior out there and had a fantastic game.”
A combination of Western’s physical play, steady inside containment and stringent pass rush on defense, effectually reduced the Vikings’ offensive to a one-dimensional weapon. As the second half wore on, the inside run between the tackles became Union Pines’ only viable option to move the football – when it was not turning it over.
Rodriguez went three-for-18 passing for 34 yards and threw three interceptions in his debut as the Vikings’ starting signal caller. The Eagles also sacked him three times and he had four fumbles, with Western recovering two of the drops.
“Despite all the negatives tonight, I still felt like we had some opportunities in this game,” Riggan said, “but we just could not take advantage of them. A few misalignments allowed their big play guys to go off to the races and that is something we have to go over with the guys in film this weekend and next week for Westover.
“Still we came into this game talking about playing mistake free football and we did not do that. We talked about making first-shot tackles and we did not do that. So, the game plan was there – we just have to do a better job of executing and moving forward. If we can do that then we have a chance at winning a game.”
With the loss, Union Pines’ CFVC-losing streak hit the 10-game mark. The Vikes are 2-5 for the season and 0-3 in conference competition.
The Vikings are back on the road next week, when they travel to Fayetteville for a league clash with the Westover Wolverines (1-6, 0-2) – a team that fell 44-0 Friday to current league leader Douglas Byrd (7-0, 3-0).
In other conference action Gray’s Creek (6-1, 2-1) topped Southern Lee (5-2, 2-1) 42-21, while Overhills (1-5, 1-1) had a bye week.
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